Challenging, Supportive Computer Science Program Allows Students to Excel

Faculty and administrators at California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB) and nearby Hartnell College, a two-year institution, are removing obstacles that keep students from completing computer science degrees, like stereotypes about who should be in these classes. They know that when given the tools, all students are capable of excelling.

[Above: Daniel Diaz, from Cohort 1, leads discussions about introductory programming with his Cohort 2 peers, as part of CS-in-3’s peer-led team learning program. (From left to right: Martin Almaraz, Diaz, Miriam Flores, and Stephen Negron)]

Maritza Abzun, from Cohort 1, leads discussions about introductory programming with her Cohort 2 peers, as part of CS-in-3’s peer-led team learning program. (From left to right: Daniel Perez, Naelin Aquino, Abzun, Christian Martinez, and Salvador Ramirez)

Participants in the accelerated CS-in-3 program (computer science degree in three years) are dually enrolled at Hartnell and CSUMB from day one, which helps eliminate one of the biggest barriers to success that community college students face.

“So many students get defeated by the transfer process,” says Joe Welch, instructor of computer information systems at Hartnell and co-director of CS-in-3. “It’s incredible how hard we make it [to transfer to a four-year institution].”

In addition to assistance with transferring, CS-in-3 students have their academic schedule mapped out for the entirety of the three-year program, which includes all computer science and general education classes in CSUMB’s traditional undergraduate computer science and information technology degree. Students also receive coaching to help prepare them to interview for summer internships.

Thanks to a donation from philanthropist Andy Matsui, the entire program costs students just over $12,000. With academic and financial barriers reduced, students can focus on learning and graduating on time.

Because the program began in the fall of 2013, none of the students have graduated yet, but retention rates have been staggering. Of the first cohort, 27 of the 32 students are still with the program, and 23 are on track to graduate in 2016. Last year’s cohort of 32 has retained 28 students.

“We have to be careful not to understate how impressive retention has been so far,” says Welch. “Before this program, of the 36 students starting CS-in-3 this fall, only eight or nine of them would have moved on, and only about half of them would have graduated in five years.”

CS-in-3 has gotten a lot of attention for the diversity of its participants — about 90 percent are Latino, nearly half of participants are women, and almost all are first-generation students — but Sathya Narayanan, program co-director and associate professor of computer science and information technology at CSUMB, says there’s more to the story than that.

“This is college done right,” he says. “We’re getting students to where they need to be and giving them a high-quality education.”

Welch says that the fact these participants are excelling despite having little or no exposure to computer science in high school is proof of what is possible when you don’t make assumptions about peoples’ capabilities.

“Our students can rock; they can come to play, and they have the ability to thrive and be challenged in ways that they’re not usually challenged,” he says. “They’re doing more than we ask, and we are already asking a lot.”

“Our students spend more hours studying than students at highly selective colleges,” Narayanan adds. “Diversity does not mean lowering the bar.”

Welch and Narayanan are optimistic that tech’s biggest companies will begin recognizing the quality work these students are capable of and move beyond recruiting at only elite schools.